Side Effects

A logical follow-up to the low-budget but commercially popular “Magic Mike,” Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects” is a trashy medical-psychological thriller that lacks depth or originality of observation but is timely and enjoyable.

World premiering at the 2013 Berlin Film Fest, “Side Effects” will be released stateside by Open Road on February 8. With some critical support, this hip picture can generate interest among the twentysomething and thirtysomething crowds due to its relevant subect matter and appealing cast.

Having directed over 23 features in 23 years, Soderbergh is now the new Woody Allen, making movies quickly and inexpensively at the rate of one or two works per year. Less concerned with the artistic merits of his work anymore, he goes for thematically relevant, issue-oriented films that are shot in a stylish, jazzy style and captures the audience’s attention, at least for the duration of the viewing experience.

This is the third teaming of Soderbergh with the handsome rising star Channing Tatum (who is also in overwork mode), and the first with Rooney Mara, the gifted actress, who had a small but impressive part in “The Social Network,” and a major one in Fincher’s American remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which garnered her first Best Actress Oscar nomination.

As functionally scripted by Scott Z. Burns (who had also penned Soderbergh’s former, all-star medical thriller, “Contagion”), the dramatically engaging thriller centers on a young, successful yuppie couple, Emily and Martin Taylor (Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum), whose entire existence is shattered, when a new drug prescribed by Emily’s psychiatrist (Jude Law in a canny performance), meant to treat her increasing anxiety, bears unexpected side effects in the short run and in the long run.

When first met, Emily and Martin are living a good, luxurious life, enjoying the rewards of success, defined by an elegant mansion, a spacious sailboat, and any and every luxurious item their money can buy. Things change, when Martin is sent to prison for insider trading.

For four years, Emily waits for him in a tiny apartment in upper Manhattan, but his release is just as devastating as his incarceration, causing Emily’s descent into a deep mental and emotional depression.

After a failed suicide attempt, the psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is asked to consult on Emily’s case. Dr Banks prescribes an assortment of popular drugs, including Prozac, Zoloft and Ablixa.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, working with Soderbergh for the third time, plays the icy, sophisticated Dr. Victoria Siebert. A psychiatrist who first treated Emily for depression shortly after her husband went to jail, Dr. Siebert provides a different perspective on what’s happening with the patient.
Fearing hospitalization (not to mention institutionalization), Emily agrees to engage in regular therapy and take prescribed anti-depressants, unaware of the fatal (and fateful) consequences of her decision. Gradually, Emily begins to show the by-products of excessive medication, including nausea, unusual libido, even sleepwalking.

When Emily’s symptoms fail to produce the expected “miracle” progress, Banks prescribes a new medication. But the side effects of the drug have chilling and scary effects, manifest in ruined marriages and relationships.

Gradually, Banks’ practice is decimated and a person is found mysteriously dead. But who is the culprit and who is responsible? Devastated by this professional setback, Banks becomes obsessed, even paranoid with resolving the case. He embarks on a mission of truth-seeking that threatens to destroy whatever is left of his career and his private life.

Structurally, the first reel, which sets up the basic situation, is the strongest, replete with mounting tension. But the twists and turns that define the rest of the narrative are too abrupt and not logical enough for discernible viewers, and the very last sequence is weak.

As director, Soderbergh showers Emily with close-ups, but he refuses to treat her as the story’s agent, that is, present the events from her subjective POV. It would have made a more intriguing portrait, I think, if Soderbergh didn’t use disancing devices and let us see more pf the proceedings from Emily’s personal and distorted perspective.

Even so, in long stretches, the movie is engaging, and it’s hard not to notice Soderbergh’s effort at turning his off–the-headline news tale into a hip and cool experience for both his protagonists and his viewers.

To that extent, he is greatly assisted by his two central appealing actors, Mara Taum, each looking sexy and also benefiting from strong chemistry in their scenes together.